Lola Keyezua: A romantic realist

Fortia (copyright 2019 KEYEZUA)

Writer and curator Jareh Das talks with photographer Lola Keyezua about the intricacies of producing art that tackles disability, loss and womanhood.

An Angolan-Dutch artist, Lola Keyezua challenges stereotypes about the African body through her deeply moving photography practice, which centres on portraiture. Photography serves as a critical tool for tackling a range of difficult subjects including female genital mutilation (FGM), the plight of African migrants affected by human trafficking, loss of loved ones, disability and illness. 

Rendered in what can be described as Romantic-Realism, Keyezua’s images also actively dispel a ‘prejudiced narrative about Africa’ and contribute to a more socially inclined narrative in art. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague, The Netherlands, Keyezua now lives and works in Luanda, Angola where she continues to develop works that explore the body (through portraiture) as a social, political and cultural site where meanings continue to be done and undone. In Fortia, 2017 (Latin for “strength”) for example, the artist tackles losing her father to diabetes at a young age, as well as the disability that had followed as a result of his illness, in a series of images tackling loss of the father figure. With works titled My Mother’s WombThis is Not His FuneralThis is Life!Sailing Back to Africa as a Dutch Woman and Womanhood – Sex, Love and Betrayal, Keyezua is reframing survivors’ stories with pride rather than melancholy.

In her 2016 series Afroeucentric Face On, African masking tradition was invoked to question beauty standards that render Caucasian faces as the ideal. Commenting on this body of work, Keyezua explains, ‘I first portray the face of one of the women with the most beautiful face and I slowly vandalize [this] by making the features Afroeucentric; destroying what is considered perfect to exhibit beautiful black features, as a black woman adorns a mask of a white woman from a magazine.’[1]

In this interview, the artist speaks about challenging African stereotypes, blackness, beauty ideals and the range of difficult subjects she addresses in her socially engaged photography practice.

[1] For a full text on Afroeucentric Face On visit Tumblr

Floating Nightmares (copyright KEYEZUA 2019)

Could you expand a bit on how photography has a served as a critical tool to countering stereotypes about Africans and Africaness in your practice?

The exhibited narratives in my work intend to challenge stereotypes that were constructed during colonialism and still exist in these post-colonial times, which causes both cultural and racial bias. In my photography, I seek to offer pride, solace and resilience of bodies. It is first portrayed through a black body as this is the body that I own and know through my social, political experience. Additionally, this body is placed in different societal contexts that still deal with discrimination and a dependence on Eurocentrism. The storytelling offers many perspectives and it gives one the freedom to be politically and economically critical to the current situation in the world. 

What inspired or rather what questions were you raising about black beauty ideals with the work Afroeucentric Face On?

It is a response to Eurocentric beauty standards, I vandalize the “perfect face” as a reaction to mediocre studies and research about beauty standards, which are racially separating women instead of uniting them. There is no beauty ideal but rather a beautiful human in all of us and it is complicated to look at humans like this. Sometimes I see that the conversation started in Afroeucentric Face On tends to create separation. A black woman does not need to discriminate a white woman to validate her beauty or vice versa. This is not how I want this work to guide the conversation about beauty ideals, which were developed during colonialism and are still of use in post-colonial times.

‘The power to confront without asking for permission empowers the artist and it creates opportunities for different social groups to debate.’

Your practice deals with social-political issues ranging from humanitarianism relating to human trafficking and disability. How has using a futurist lens in your photography helped to convey difficult subjects?

Blackness is in me and many stories start with what I have learned from the past few years as an artist working in Angola. Through photography I have been speaking to people that probably would not have accepted the conversation as I’m an artist and not a politician. The power to confront without asking for permission empowers the artist and it creates opportunities for different social groups to debate. My art does not wait for its receiver to give permission but rather exists to evoke emotions in visual storytelling. Only an artist can look into the future and almost touch the reality that is about to reveal [itself]. Subjects attached to pain, depression and trauma are often very difficult conversations to start with in the black community. Through images, we offer a visualisation in its romantic form which makes it easier for the viewer to start discussing their own beliefs and fear.

The body with its strength and weaknesses are often themes addressed in your work. Fortier (2017), for example, deals with the female body, masking rituals and personal loss of your father at a young age. How did you resolve working with personal loss and grief alongside representations of disability with this body of work?

You don´t grow up to learn to deal with the death of a loved parent. In Fortia, I performed a ritual to remember my father differently – it’s not the sadness and depression that dances around the pain of death. I want to honour my father and those that share the same story, as survivors of war or sickness with pride and solace rather than melancholy. The stigmatisation of disability can lead to discrimination and depression. In the details found in the masks in Fortia, I exhibit the resilience I saw in a group of men living in poverty with their legs amputated. Their strength in this body of work helped me understand how we can still rise after traumatic events. 

‘Bodies exhibiting disability tell a story about renouncement, but also survival and strength in continuing to tell stories and claiming their worth.’

Do you have personal reflections (positive or negative) on how people with disabilities are perceived inn Angola? Is this something your work seeks to address or counteract?

The lack of assistance and empowerment given is a negative part of our society, which we shall erase. For this to happen, we need all artists to contribute to positive, gripping narratives in their stories. Bodies exhibiting disability tell a story about renouncement, but also survival and strength in continuing to tell stories and claiming their worth. Disability is a very difficult subject to discuss between different social groups and governments. In Angola, every day I see what we inherited from war and what war has created in each individual. Poverty is an enemy to disability. I do not want to be part of the generation that offered silence to all these amputated bodies lying in the metropolitan city of Luanda.

Being of the diaspora with an Angolan-Dutch identity, how do you straddle the often-clashing cultures that this dual identity brings to your art and life?

My first thought has to do with empowerment of myself and not with my Angolan-Dutch identity. Teaching myself acceptance and to rise from situations where someone tried to erase my existence as a valuable human being was essential in both countries. One can respect both heritages by existing first as an individual and by placing as a priority the empowerment of who I am, before I exist to accept what people want me to be as a black woman in our society.

What projects are you currently working on and are performance and live art areas you seek to explore in future?

I gave birth to my first child in Luanda where daily, a lot of children die. There is so much pain and romance attached to giving birth. I want to explore the social, economic and political context of motherhood. In Angolan public hospitals, most mothers do not lay in a birth bed but rather in a death bed due to the lack of assistance and protection during labour and after birth. There are many layers attached to birth and I want to undress all of this to begin to tell my story and to connect my story to others. 

Lola Keyezua is represented by Movart Gallery in Luanda. 

Stone Orgasms (copyright KEYEZUA 2019)